Monday, October 15, 2018

A minor rant: Elvin's 18

In Elvin Jones's 1982 Modern Drummer interview, Rick Mattingly asked him about his use of an 18" bass drum:

RM: I've heard various explanations of why jazz drummers started using 18" bass drums. Some people go into detail about the function of the bass drum in modern jazz, and give reasons why the 18" drum was more suited to the music. Others contend that the only reason the smaller drum was used was because it was easier to carry around. 
EJ: Well, that's the reason why I used it. Twenty years ago, we traveled a great deal by car. We would throw all of our stuff in a station wagon or a car, then we'd all pile in and off on the road we would go. That's the way bands traveled then. So it made a difference if you had a compact unit of equipment. I only used two tom-toms in those days: the floor tom-tom was 14 x 14, and the small tom-tom was 8 x 12. 
But when I used a 20" bass drum, it just would not fit in the trunk of the car. If I put it in the back seat, that took up the space where two people could sit. So that made it necessary to tie the damn thing down on top of the car on a rack. I ruined a lot of drums that way. Whenever it would rain, with the car going sixty miles an hour, the rain would be forced right through the case, onto the drum itself. So the drum was a soggy mess when we arrived at where we were supposed to go. And then there were times that the ropes would slip and the drum would fall off on the highway.  
So when I got an 18" bass drum, there was no problem at all. My drums would all fit comfortably into the trunk of a car, along with a suitcase, and perhaps even some golf clubs. So the drums had to be as practical as they were functional. 
Another good reason for having the smaller set was that it fit in with the overall image of the group. If there were only four or five people on the bandstand, the drumset was not obtrusive; it blended with that whole image.

This subject came up often with MD writers in the 80s, and it's still a popular topic today, mainly among non-jazz drummers seeking justice for their large bass drums. They always sound like they're trying to talk their way out of the last ~55 years of jazz history. There seems to be a kind of originalist mentality in effect, as if everyone since c. 1961 is only using that size of drum on Elvin's authority... so if Elvin's reason is no good any more, why are you laughing at me for bringing a 22" drum on a jazz gig? It's all a big scam!

Mattingly brought it up a couple of years later with Tony Williams:

RM: Some people have several drumsets. If they're playing with a big band, they'll use a 24" bass drum. If they're playing with a trio, they'll use an 18", and so on and so forth. Correct me if I'm wrong, but as far as I know, you use the same set from electric music to the Great Jazz Trio. Is there something to be said about controlling the sound? 
TW: Yeah, I think so. That's exactly what it is. That's exactly what I'm trying to portray. People I've worked with have asked me why I don't get a smaller bass drum. Why should I? 
RM: Tell them to get a smaller piano. 
TW: Yeah. "Play on two strings. Get out of here." I really like the drums. That's what I'm about. If we're playing soft and I have a 24" bass drum, I can play it there. One of the reasons I don't play an 18" anymore is that I got to the point where I was playing harder. If you know anything about physics, if I'm hitting the drums and they're not responding, I'm going to hit harder, and then I'm going to wear myself out. So that little drum sounds nice, but from back here where I'm sitting I'm not going to hear it. So I needed a little more weight, especially when I started playing in an electric situation. And when I played in the Great Jazz Trio, on my solo I could open up. A little drumset is nice. I like the 18". It's cute. It's really nice looking— easy to carry. It fits in the backseat of my car. 
RM: When I started playing jazz, I was coming out of rock and I had a 22" bass drum. When I played at jazz sessions, people would say, "That's not a jazz bass drum." 
RM : People were giving me all these profound reasons why Max and Elvin used an 18" bass. I finally had a chance to meet Elvin and Max and ask, "Why did you start using an 18" bass drum?" They said, "Well, we were on the road ..." 

Elvin and Max are not the only people who get to decide what kind of instrument is correct. Succeeding generations of drumming artists have spoken on the subject by continuing to use that size of drum, for a lot of other good reasons besides can I fit four guys in the car with it. (Which is still a very good reason, if you ever travel to play a gig.)

In his interview with Scott Fish, Max Roach talks about it a little bit:

SF: Back in the '50s and '60s jazz drummers were primarily using the smaller size drums: 18" bass, 12" mounted tom and 14" floor tom. I've heard that one of the main reasons drummers used that size drum was because they were easier to transport than larger drums.  
MR: Exactly. It made it easier to get from town to town. Pack up your gear, put it in your car, and off you go. That was one of the main reasons I think. Plus, the bass drum had begun to become less and less an integral part of the whole musical set-up. It's different now. The bass drum, at that time, would stamp out what was happening with the acoustic bass. Even the pianists would leave that part. They would voice their chords so the bottom of the piano would be in thirds and sevenths instead of tonics and fifths. They left that part for the acoustic bass. So, your bass drum would only be used for accents and supports. So the small drum was great, plus, you didn't have all the electronics around you, so you didn't need that power there. There were many reasons for it. But, today you do need that power with the electronic scene. 

We're not playing 18s just to honor Elvin's logistical requirements, just like we haven't universally dumped that dumb old 13/16/22 configuration just to poop on Joe Morello and Philly Joe. Likewise, 16" bass drums have been commercially available for a long time, but they are still a niche item, because smallness-wise, they're a bridge too far. Who wouldn't prefer shlepping a 16" if it sounded great?*

I don't believe drumming would have developed the same way if everyone was just playing 22" bass drums. Or even 20". I dusted off my 20" Gretsch recently and— yeah— it's just not as nimble for modern playing. It's a different instrument. Tony certainly didn't play his 24 the same way he played the 18. He sounded way better on the 18. The big drums are good for big band, or trad jazz where you're feathering and dropping occasional bombs; the small drum is better for modern playing in acoustic small group settings.

Almost as important: it's what everyone expects you to have. You have to have some credibility with the other musicians to show up to a quartet gig with anything larger than a 20. They may not know much about the drums, but they know when someone has a weird instrument. And lest anyone protest Who cares what they think?you should care, if you want them to keep calling you for gigs.

It's a credibility sap. You want people to think you know what you're doing. If you don't play super great, or you play something weird they don't get, or you can't control that 22 as well as you think you do, and you annoy them with it, they'll file you as that clueless weirdo with the wrong size drums and not call you back.

Finally, I don't want anyone to think I'm dumping on Mattingly**— him litigating this in print 35 years ago is amusing in a good-natured collegial way, but it's only an issue now because other people continue talking about it.

* - Note to self: try making a 16" Sonor Phonic tom tom into a bass drum, I'll bet it would sound great.
** - Buy his book Creative Timekeeping

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